They are arguably the two best quarterbacks in the NFL, Super Bowl-proven and in their mid-20s.
Patrick Mahomes has led the Kansas City Chiefs to two Super Bowls, one championship and five consecutive AFC Championship games.
Joe Burrow led the Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl last season and has his team primed for a possible comeback.
So Mahomes and Burrow will be key players Sunday when the Chiefs host the Bengals in the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium.
Or, as Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton called it, “Burrowhead.”
That’s the nickname Hilton gave the place based on the Bengals’ recent success against the Chiefs.
The Bengals, under coach Zac Taylor, have defeated the Chiefs and coach Andy Reid in three straight games. That includes a 27-24 overtime win in last season’s championship game and a 27-24 win this season on Dec. 4 at Cincinnati.
That success, and a right ankle injury Mahomes suffered in last week’s divisional-round win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, made the Bengals the early favorite among oddsmakers.
Burrow, 26, is very confident but didn’t sound completely sold on the front-runner status.
“We know what team we’re playing, a team that’s been in this game for the last five seasons, and they’ve all been in this stadium,” Burrow told reporters this week. “So, for me, they’re still the team to beat, and we’re going to get them.”
The Chiefs have won six straight since a December loss to the Bengals. Mahomes, who passed for a league-best 5,250 yards and 41 touchdowns during the regular season, left the Jan. 21 divisional-round game against the Jaguars after suffering a sprained ankle. He returned and finished 22 of 30 passing for 195 yards and two touchdowns in the 27-20 victory.
Mahomes, 27, leads an offense that features Travis Kelce, who had 14 catches against the Jaguars, and wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Kadarius Toney. Running back Isiah Pacheco is the best running back.
How the ankle problem affects Mahomes’ mobility won’t be apparent until he’s forced to evade the pass rush. That puts extra pressure on the offensive line to control tight ends Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard, the Bengals’ sack leaders.
Mahomes, a two-time All-Pro, looks forward to the challenge as the Chiefs try to advance to the Super Bowl for the third time in four seasons.
“If you’re not fired up to play against a team that beat you three straight and in the AFC championship game,” he told reporters this week, “then you’re not going to get fired for any game.”
Burrow is playing even better than last season, when he had his team close to defeating the Rams in the Super Bowl.
This season, he passed for 4,475 yards and 35 touchdowns, with 12 interceptions.
The Bengals, winners of 10 games in a row, feature perhaps the top receiving bodies in the NFL in Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. Tight end Hayden Hurst, wide receiver Trenton Irwin and running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine are other targets.
Burrow completed 23 of 36 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns in last Sunday’s 27-10 win over the Buffalo Bills, while Mixon ran for 105 yards and a touchdown.
Burrow will be working against a Chiefs defense that includes rookie cornerbacks Trent McDuffie and Jaylen Watson.
Chiefs All-Pro tackle Chris Jones and veteran tight end Frank Clark will lead the rush against Burrow.
“He’s got that Peyton Manning in him,” Clark told reporters, adding, “He can read the safeties and he can read the defense. … When you’re a defense that can’t really disguise coverage or disguise things, he it will separate every time.”
Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo put it another way when he described Burrow’s ability to keep his poise and make plays.
“The word that comes to mind is witty,” he said. “He never panics in the pocket. He looks like he has six eyes around his head.”